Chief Ayo Adebanjo, a leader of the Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-cultural group, is also one of the closest persons to Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, who died last Friday. In this interview with SULAIMON OLANREWAJU, he speaks about his relationship with the late lawyer, the need to restructure the country, as well as efforts to unite the Yoruba race. Excerpts.
How did you receive the news of the death of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi?
It was a shock. It was in the midnight that his son phoned me and said ‘your friend is gone’ and I said, ‘which of my friends’. He said ‘my dad’. I said, ‘your dad?’ I was really shocked. A few days earlier we had a meeting in Ikenne. From that meeting we went to see our mutual friend in Ikenne, Pa Onafowokan. We had a drink there and we fixed a meeting between himself and me on my memoir which he had gone through. We were to have a meeting to review his comments on the memoir at three o’clock that same Friday he died. I even suggested that we should have the meeting a bit earlier on that Friday but he said that he had a meeting with the publisher of his new book. So, we agreed to meet at 3 o’clock. That 3 o’clock, I was at his house in Isara, but it was not for a meeting with him but to commiserate with his children.
As I said, it was a shock. He didn’t bid me farewell. He didn’t say that he was leaving me alone at this time. It is a big loss. To me personally, it is a big loss. It is a big loss to Yorubaland, to the Awo’s family, to Afenifere, to Isara community, to the Methodist Church and to his family.
As far as I am concerned, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi cannot be replaced. Now, I am all alone. I am left with my God. He was the only man with whom I could discuss political events realistically and confidently.
When I met in 1954 in Sagamu, I was the Organising Secretary of the Action Group. I was looking for intelligent young people to be recruited into the party. He was the Education Supervising Officer of the Methodist Church. It was from there I contacted him and he became a member of the party. Not only that, I continue to say that was a blessed day for me. He turned out to be one of the fruits that yielded thousands and thousands of benefits to the party and to me personally. Why? I wanted to recruit him into the party but we thereafter became very close friends. I was in Sagamu then as a divorcee. He was also in Sagamu then. Later, he left for England and left me behind but I also left for England and joined him. I was staying with him in his flat before I got my own flat. As God would have it, I got my own flat close to his. But beyond that, it was through him and his wife that I met the woman I eventually married and I want to tell you that I am still enjoying the marriage up till today. So, you can see that our relationship was a great one.
We have been great confidants. He was a reliable, dependable and loyal friend. As an Awoist, I can confidently say that he was an Awoist to the core. He was not a diluted Awoist. He was not an Awoist of convenience. He really understood what Awoism stands for and practiced it as Chief Awolowo taught us. As it is now, I cannot see anyone to replace him because most of the others to whom we preached Awoism, accepted the philosophy when it was convenient. Everything they do is for their own selfish interest, not for the masses, not for the benefit of the people as Chief Awolowo taught us.
He will be missed. I will miss him, the family will miss him, Yorubaland will miss him, Methodist Church will miss him, and Nigeria will miss him. But I am very sure that with the way he lived his life, he is sure to be on the right hand of God because he served God and humanity. May his soul rest in peace.
Specifically what are you going to miss about him?
Where do I begin? He was the only one who I could talk to confidently. He was the only man I could trust for genuine advice and opinion on any issue without any pretence. I don’t think there is anyone living now that can replace him.
I thank God for his life as a whole because he lived a fulfilled life. Our association has been very good. We will miss him but we can’t ask God for anything better. He was 91 years, yet he was in good health. He did not suffer ill health for weeks or months before dying. So, we thank God.
Your relationship spanned over six decades. Were there times that you had disagreements?
Oh yes. We had our disagreements but we argued them out. We were not follow-follow friends. Whenever we disagreed on issues, we argued them out, the typical Action Group style. We argued a lot but we would always submit to superior argument as laid down by Chief Awolowo.
Why is it that we don’t have such commitments to great ideals anymore among young people?
I can’t explain that because it was often a subject of discussion between him and me. All the political activities that those of us who are advanced in age get involved in today would not have been necessary if we had younger ones who are committed to great ideals. At 91, why should Sir Olaniwun Ajayi still be in the trenches? At 88 years why should I still be in the trenches? But the experience we have had is that those who followed us into the Awo camp, with the benefit of hindsight, did not understand what Awoism is but jumped on it for relevance and opportunity to make name and all that, not for what Action Group or the Unity Party of Nigeria stood for. So, the moment there was a little setback, they jumped ships. That is why many of them, when the times were hard, joined other parties. And you wonder why those of us who have been politically active for over 65 years have not changed but many of them, in five years have joined five parties. Consistency in politics is very vital to us. That is what you will observe in the two of us. We are consistent in our beliefs. Whether people agree with us or not, as long as we believe that we are doing the right thing, we will pursue it to the end.
This is what I believe anyone mourning Sir Olaniwun Ajayi should aim at. Consistency in the pursuit of what they believe is right. He was consistent in progressive politics.
Sir Olaniwun Ajayi was passionate about Yoruba unity. Now that he is gone, what is the hope of a united Yorubaland?
Well, I will continue to do as much as I can. We will not give up until we get to the grave because our leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, never gave up until he got to the grave. Until Sir Olaniwun Ajayi died, we were pursuing Yoruba unity. That is what led us to (Senator Bola) Tinubu. With all the misgivings and all that he did, many people were wondering why we went to him. But we know that those who are using him, those he joined against our wish don’t like him but they want to dominate Yorubaland. And the moment they finish him, and send him to the ground, they will just be kicking those of us in Yorubaland. That is why we went to Tinubu. We are working hard for Yoruba unity. That is the only thing that can save us from Fulani domination. No matter the pretence of the Fulani, their agenda is to dominate Yorubaland. And I challenge them, if they are not pretending, let them restructure the country.
We are not opposed to unity at all. As I often say, we are the champions of unity. Anybody opposed to restructuring the country that will make us return to a truly federal constitution, is an enemy of Nigerian unity because we can’t have unity under this constitution. If anybody is realistic, if any Northerner or anybody from any part of the country believes that they want a united Nigeria, then we should come together under agreed terms.
The condition which the founding fathers of the country, Sardauna of Sokoto, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, gave us at independence is not what we are using now. When we are canvassing for true restructuring, we are only asking for a return to what the founding fathers gave us. Why should there be a quarrel over that? Even those who are followers of Sardauna are now saying no to restructuring and they occupied positions under that system. It should be clear to Nigerians that any northerner that is opposed to restructuring will confirm our position that they want to dominate. They want unity on their own terms not on an agreed term of the component people. As I often say, they want the unity of the horse and the rider; where they will be the rider and we the horse. It will not happen. If they insist on that they should be sure that it will be the end of Nigeria.
I don’t mince words by saying that without restructuring, there will be no Nigeria. So, if President Buhari is serious that Nigeria should remain united, he should implement the 2014 national constitutional conference report.
Do you think President Buhari will implement the report?
He should if he means well for the country. At independence there were three regions and the regions had three separate constitutions. There was devolution of powers, which we recommended at the 2014 national conference. For your information, all the wonders that Chief Awolowo did in the old Western Region within seven years, did he ever go to the Federal Government for subsidy? No, it was the constitution that allowed him to do all that he did. Every region managed development at its own pace. When Awolowo was building the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello was also building Ahmadu Bello Stadium in the North. When Ahmadu Bello was building a university in the North, the Western region also started building the University of Ife. That was a competition in government made possible by federalism.
If the northerners want the Sharia legal system, they can have it in their area because it is their wish. But it is wrong of them to attempt to force their culture on the rest of the country. It is for this that we need to restructure the country so that every region can develop at its own pace.
The conference had an assemblage of some of the finest people in the country. Every ethnic nationality was represented. We had traditional rulers, lawyers and top professionals. Every shade of opinion was represented at the conference. So, if the President is as concerned about the development of the country as he makes us understand, he should implement the report.